Flexible working: it’s time for businesses to stop holding back

This is a guest blog post by Harriet Minter, former Editor of the Guardian’s Women in Leadership section. Harriet provided her perspectives on the role women can play in transforming the workplace at our Women in Technology event on 18th October 2016.

In 1921 Henry Ford thought he’d found the perfect formula for a productive workforce.

harriet-minter-headshotHe’d studied how many car parts his production line could produce, what environment was necessary for them to do this and at what point their productivity fell to the point that the extra hours they were putting in were actually slowing them down.

He decided that a 40-hour week was optimal, and so began the cult of the 9-to-5.

Nearly 100 years later and we’re still working in the same way. Employers judge performance based on presenteeism and employees clock-watch away the hours, keen to be seen in the office even if there’s no need for them to be there.

Yet despite this devotion to structure, we have all the technology and knowledge to create a workforce that works from anywhere, in any way. So what’s holding us back?

This was the question discussed at last Tuesday’s Women in Technology dinner. The event brought together leading women from some of Fujitsu’s main clients to discuss how we can create a culture than not only supports but enhances and develops flexible working.

The topic was of particular resonance for the women there because even now flexible working is still seen as a “women’s issue”, something only women request when they want to spend more time with their family.

The implied assumption, therefore, is that anyone working flexibly has slightly taken their foot off the pedal. They’re not interested in their career. So it’s no wonder that flexible working has got a stigma around it.

This stigma was discussed on Tuesday night. How can you trust your team when you give them complete freedom to work exactly as they want?

Suggestions included: getting really clear on what all of their deliverables are and clearly holding them to account, being open with your team about the positives and negatives of flexible working and accepting that it might not work for all of them, and making sure to regularly check in with them and see how it’s working for them.

The women in attendance also noted the way people who request flexible working can often be treated, the difficulties that it might stir up amongst their colleagues and how the management of it has to be right for the entire department, not just one person.

One issue that can raise its head when you have colleagues working in different ways is a feeling of resentment amongst the team. Staff might ask why one of them gets to work from home on a Friday but it’s not available to everyone.

Again, the feeling is that whether this becomes a problem or not is down to the management involved.

Managing expectations of your team around flexible working is one of the most important points. Managers need to be open to having the conversation about it and open to understanding how it could work but also realistic to the needs of the business, because if flexible working doesn’t fit with that it will never become a successful programme.

If employers can make the move from measuring their employees productivity by output rather than hours in the office, however, the opportunities for creating a more engaged and forward-looking workforce are endless.

One of the issues raised by the women present at the event was that caring responsibilities were only going to increase in the coming generation. We’ll no longer just be responsible for caring for children but also for parents.

Flexible working is necessary both to ensure that this doesn’t become just a women’s problem but also to give men the freedom to speak up and tell their employers when it’s a problem they’re facing.

Used correctly, flexible working won’t just work for women or employees, it will work for all of us and create better business for everyone.

For more information on other upcoming events please click here.

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